The Champions League final is the most hotly-anticipated fixture of pretty much any season, and it’s now just around the corner. This season’s showdown feels like a particularly unique one too; underdogs Liverpool represent an emerging and youthful, potent force; back-to-back winners Real Madrid, in contrast, have depended on their unrivalled experience and individual quality on the most-part this term.
So, will Real Madrid become iconic three-time Champions League title victors, or will Liverpool bring about a changing of the guard at the summit of European football? We aren’t privy to a crystal ball, but here’s everything you need to know before kickoff…
From their five meetings to date, it’s actually Liverpool who boast the upper hand. However, all three of their victories came from their first three encounters with Real Madrid; the other two being from the Group Stages of the 2014/15 season, when Brendan Rodgers’ side lost both to an aggregate scoreline of 4-0 and swiftly exited the competition.
The key advantage for Real Madrid, however, is how much experience they boast at this stage of the competition. Despite Liverpool being British football’s most successful side in Europe’s top tournament, Real Madrid have won more than double the number of titles, and their final win rate is superior by 9%.
Curiously, every encounter to date has included a clean sheet for the victors. The chances of that trend continuing on Saturday appear incredibly slim.
The ultimate fear for any English side in Europe is how referees tend to have an incredibly different perspective of the game, compared to the rough-and-tumble nature of the Premier League. Despite having something of a reputation amongst Liverpool supporters for awarding Anthony Martial a soft penalty in their 2016 Europa League clash with Manchester United though, that shouldn’t be too much of a problem with Mirolad Mazic in charge.
His ranking from the 37 referees to work in the Champions League proper this season is a little high for fouls per match, but overall he’s pretty much midtable for that alongside fouls per tackle and yellow cards per game. The danger though, rests in the fact Mazic is yet to award a foul or a penalty this season – it feels like the Croatian is due one.
In terms of form from their last six games, there really isn’t much to choose between the Champions League finalists. Liverpool have lost twice compared to Real Madrid’s single defeat, but won their last game against Brighton on the final day of the season which should breed huge confidence ahead of the clash in Kiev. Real Madrid, on the other hand, could only manage a draw away at fifth-placed Villarreal.
Likewise, whereas the Spanish capital outfit have scored more goals, Liverpool boast the better defensive record by an extra clean sheet. In terms of toughest recent opponents too, both come in the form of their respective semi-final losers – Serie A’s third-placers Roma and Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich.
Perhaps the key difference then, albeit by a single goal, is the surge in form from Gareth Bale, his return surpassing Mohamed Salah’s throughout both clubs’ last six outings. Considering he’s not even Real Madrid’s chief goalscorer – that title belonging to Cristiano Ronaldo – that extra firepower is a massive advantage for Saturday’s final.
There’s been plenty of criticism over how underwhelming Real Madrid’s performances have been this season both domestically and in Europe. Rather than any fluid brilliance going forward, Zinedine Zidane’s side have relied on their experience, structure and moments of individual quality – the majority being provided by Ronaldo.
But it’s easy to overlook that Real Madrid have endured one of the toughest routes to the final in recent memory. They finished second in a group that also included Tottenham and 2013 finalists Borussia Dortmund, while every knockout round has squared them up with a domestic champion this season. With that in mind, rather than criticising Madrid, perhaps we should be praising the competitiveness of their opposition.
In terms of opposition, Liverpool’s journey has been considerably less competitive, but it did start far earlier, just a week after the beginning of their Premier League campaign. Having finished fourth, the Reds needed to beat Hoffenheim to qualify for the Group Stages but that did give a glimpse of what they’d bring to the competition this year with six goals scored over both legs.
Liverpool then came out on top in their group, only really being troubled by Sevilla, before making surprisingly light work of both FC Porto and Manchester City. The first leg against Roma proved an unexpectedly simple challenge as well, until the final ten minutes when the Serie A outfit were handed a path back into the match – creating an incredibly tense second leg at the Stadio Olimpico. In the end, Liverpool had done just enough, but the game highlighted that they still have huge defensive vulnerabilities.
The gap between Real Madrid and Liverpool is perhaps encapsulated best by the former club’s superior squad depth. We’ll come onto the Reds in a moment but the truth is, nobody really knows what Zidane will do in Kiev because his squad has so many options. The fact he’ll end up leaving one of Isco, Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale on the bench pretty much says it all.
But because it gives him more scope to change the shape of the team mid-game, a diamond midfield setup seems the likeliest scenario, with Isco playing just behind a front two of Bale and Ronaldo. That means no start for the 81-cap Frenchman, although he’ll still be a fantastic option from the bench. The rest of Real Madrid’s midfield, their backline and the goalkeeper picks itself when everybody’s fit – and Zidane appears to have a clean bill of health.
In contrast, Klopp doesn’t have too many options outside of Liverpool’s likeliest starting XI, partly due to lesser depth (especially up front) and partly due to a series of long-term injuries during the last few months of the season. The good news, however, is that the Reds’ bench will be boosted by the return of Emre Can, in what could well be his last game for Liverpool, and that James Milner should return to the starting XI after a small injury issue. He’s claimed the most assists of any player in the Champions League this season – eight from eight starts – but sat out Liverpool’s 4-0 win over Brighton on the last day of the domestic season.
In terms of potential alterations to Liverpool’s expected XI, Nathaniel Clyne could start ahead of Trent Alexander-Arnold at right-back due to his experience and Adam Lallana could get a shock nod in midfield simply because he’s so well-suited to what will surely be an incredibly open game. But having both endured injury-thwart campaigns, they’ll likely have to settle for a spot on the bench.